Walker Buehler sauntered off the mound at Chase Field, home of the worst team in major league baseball, on Saturday night to a standing ovation. The raucous cheers came from the masses of Dodger blue that infiltrated the desert for the road team to watch their team hammer the Arizona Diamondbacks 9-3 for the home club’s record-setting 16th straight loss.
Halfway to the Dodgers’ dugout, Buehler looked up and raised his right hand to acknowledge the support, prompting the fans to reach another decibel level. They were loud because Buehler gave them a memorable evening, a dominant near no-hitter that served as a reminder of the 26-year-old right-hander’s ace-level talent.
All the Diamondbacks (20-52) could muster off Buehler through seven innings were two walks and a hit by pitch. They entered the eighth inning six outs from getting no-hit, from digging a new bottom amid one of the worst stretches in recent major league history.
But David Peralta led off the eighth inning with a line-drive single to center field on Buehler’s 102nd pitch to prevent him from recording the 24th no-hitter in franchise history. Buehler, who began the Dodgers’ last no-hitter in 2018 in his third career start, punched his glove in disappointment.
Two batters later, Nick Ahmed punched a single through the left side to coax Dodgers manager Dave Roberts from the dugout. Buehler gave him the ball, fist-bumped the five teammates who convened around him, and walked off to the shower of love.
“It was a cool moment for me,” Buehler said.
He finished with a season-high 11 strikeouts over 7-1/3 innings. He threw a season-high 108 pitches. He hasn’t been charged with a loss since September 2019. His offense made sure of that by pouncing early.
“He had his whole mix going,” Dodgers catcher Will Smith said. “He attacked, got ahead and was putting guys away.”
The Dodgers (43-27) won Friday’s series opener, but their troubles against left-handed starting pitchers continued when Caleb Smith limited them to one hit over six scoreless innings. On Saturday, Matt Peacock, a right-hander, took the mound and the Dodgers wasted no time applying pressure.
Mookie Betts led the game off with a double. Three batters later, Smith clobbered a two-run home run with two outs. The Dodgers added another run in the second inning on Gavin Lux’s RBI single.
Peacock exited after the fifth inning. Justin Turner then swatted a three-run double off right-hander Kevin Ginkel in the sixth to double the Dodgers’ lead.
That was more than Buehler needed to ensure that the Diamondbacks lost for the 38th time in 44 games.
Buehler’s 2021 season up to Saturday had been unusually successful.
On the one hand, he was the Dodgers’ most consistent starter. He completed at least six innings in each of his first 13 starts. He posted a 2.38 ERA. His walk rate was one of the lowest in the majors. He was healthy and ready out of spring training for a full workload as a major leaguer for the first time, and he was succeeding every time he got the ball.
On the other, the steady success surfaced despite producing fewer swing-and-misses than ever before in his major league career. He was striking out 8.3 hitters per nine innings, by far the fewest as a major leaguer. And yet the Dodgers won nine of his 13 games. He entered Saturday with a 6-0 record.
“I don’t know,” Dodgers pitching coach Mark Prior said before Saturday’s game. “We’ve tried to zero in on like where the why is there that lack of that swing-and-miss or lack of that punch.
“But at the end of the day, he’s pitching like six innings every time, so it’s that balance of like, ‘OK, are we going to go for potentially more punch, more strikeouts and does that lead to more walks, more baserunners, etc.?’ We’re definitely aware of it, but I haven’t been able pinpoint like why.”
Producing strikeouts wasn’t a problem for Buehler on Saturday. He generated 14 whiffs and 21 called strikes with his 108 pitches by striking breaking balls below the belt and firing fastballs up in the zone. He collected six strikeouts through four innings and didn’t allow a baserunner from the fifth inning until the eighth. By then, the no-hitter was impossible to ignore.
“For me, if I get through three, four innings, it creeps into the back of your mind and you try not to think about it at all,” Buehler said. “Then you get five or six and it kind of clicks in. I got through the seventh, felt good, had some gas left in the tank.”
Buehler has never thrown more than 117 pitches in a start, but Roberts after the game said he would have ridden him to the 125-pitch mark. He noted Buehler avoided stressful innings. He thought his stuff was still sharp. He wanted to see it through.
“Man, I wanted that no-hitter,” Roberts said.
But Peralta quickly ended the bid on a cutter that caught too much of the plate, one of the few mistakes Buehler made. Moments later, he exited to a booming roar in enemy territory with a 2.38 ERA and another win.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.